Welcome to my annual countdown of the year's best.
50. Video Games - Lana Del Rey
There's something about burning, mournful tunes that have always resonated with me. I don't know if there's something deeper about myself I'm not fully realizing, but I'm instantly drawn to them. As was the case with 'Video Games', a breathy serving of melancholy from the mesmerizing Lana Del Ray. She reminds me of an old Bond Girl, that Nancy Sinatra-type swagger that used to drive men and women wild back in the day. Her lazy drawl is in contrast to her classic beauty, but for me it just makes her that much more intriguing.
49. The Show Goes On - Lupe Fiasco
One of my fav things about Lupe is that he has never underestimated the importance of melody in rap music . 'Superstar', 'Shining Down', and now 'The Show Goes On' are excellent examples of how perfecting the ratio can work wonders. This song has hook for days.
48. Post Break-Up Sex - The Vaccines
Like the sorely-missed Black Kids, The Vaccines absolutely nail that '60s alternative vibe where dirty rock meets commercial sensibility with the most glorious of exchanges. It's very cohesive along with everything else on their album. Short, catchy, and straight to the awkward point.
47. Guilt - Nero
Dubstep's almighty resurgeance this year saw as many missteps as it did success stories, but the one song which made it all worthwhile was this blistering assault on the senses from British duo Nero. Driven by the hardest beats in the Top 40 and assisted by a haunting female vocal, this was the dubstep pinnacle all others in the field aspired to reach in 2011.
46. Glad You Came - The Wanted
It's songwriting 101, but I don't look to groups like this for anything more. Instead I use them in they way they're intended: to provide me the kind of sing-along nonsense good enough to keep me entertained for a week or two. Only this time the hook just wouldn't budge and I found myself blasting this track ten times a day. I'm still not bored with it. If you're after a couple of minutes of dumb fun with no strings attached, stop looking.
45. Jar Of Hearts - Christina Perri
I wasn't sold on this song at first - and the jury is still out on her - but it eventually weaved its way into my system. I love how shivery she sounds, especially on the bridge, which I could listen to forever. It's a shame her album didn't measure up to this standard, but there's plenty of hope for her yet, as proven on the brilliant 'A Thousand Years', from Breaking Dawn Pt. 1.
44. Marvin & Chardonnay - Big Sean feat. Kanye West & Roscoe Dash
More intense than 'My Last', but less bombastic than 'Dance (A$$)', 'Marvin & Chardonnay' found Big Sean meeting himself in the middle to emphasise why he's one of the great rap success stories of 2011. The tone of the verses is so aggressive and determined which works in perfect contrast to the soul/pop shine of the big, hearty chorus. The album doesn't always work, but if he keeps the right company I think he'll be one to watch over the next few years.
43. Til Death - Wynter Gordon
Right from that chugging beat intro it's lights out. The nursery rhyme verses are the perfect bait-and-switch setup for the chorus which goes straight for the jugular. It grabs hold and just doesn't let up, and that's exactly what I want my dance music to do. No time-wasting, no breakdown, just a hot, filthy, sweaty mess. And her voice is bananas.
42. Last Name London - Theophilus London
The thumping Chemical Brothers-style beat is what first drew me to this track, but it was soon overridden by London's delivery and his Nas-like intensity. You believe every word he raps because he's just that demanding of your attention. He's ferocious without ever crossing into DMX territory, and the instructional wordplay of the chorus (and title) never feels as stupid as it seems on paper.
41. Lady Luck - Jamie Woon
Like a close cousin of Michael Jackson's 'Who Is It' and reminiscent of the more dramatic moments from Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds, this is how I imagine Drake's music sounding if he ever decided on a pop makeover. The guy's falsetto is good enough to take on anyone in the game, and it's the heart and soul of 'Lady Luck''s pulsating chorus. Sonically, the song throws everything at you from a hand-clapping beat to gentle organ stabs to verses accentuated by Jamie's own voice chopped and screwed and disguised as synths. It's obviously experimental, but the finished product is still outstanding.
40. Good Life - OneRepublic
I don't know exactly what it is about this song. There's no flashy chorus, Ryan Tedder's vocals are still a non-event, and the words read like a page from Lyrics For Dummies. But so help me if all that doesn't add up to one of the strongest cuts of the year. I can't get enough. B.o.B's inclusion on the remix is a surprisingly good fit, too.
39. High For This - The Weeknd
The Weeknd, to me, is insomnia in the form of art. Both of 2011's mixtapes were captivating and their gloomy influence is very apparent on Drake's Take Care. The moodiness dripping from 'High For This' works like a dirty charm with Abel's chilled tone as he mumbles to his girl that, "You don't know what's in store / But you know what you're here for." The rest plays out like a trippy mess, with so much buried in the mix you could get lost for weeks.
38. Big - Sneaky Sound System
As has become their frustrating style, Sneaky Sound System released half a great album this year. Whilst achieving their career-best with From Here To Anywhere, it still shows the group's flaws. Although at the same time it makes you appreciate just how freakin' good it can be when they get it right. 'Big''s title is apt, with a spangly chorus worthy of Cher or Lady Gaga. I've long thought Connie was underrated as a singer, and if I'm honest this probably won't break any new ground for them, but for those of us already familiar, it's an incredibly satisfying return.
37. Moves Like Jagger - Maroon 5 feat. Christina Aguilera
In the beginning I was turned off by all that whistling, but something kept drawing me back to this track. The more I heard it, the more I couldn't resist its cheesy pull. It's a bit of a shame Christina is only there for the hell of it, because I still think the second verse should've been all her, but the song really doesn't suffer for it. Cute video, too.
36. Gucci Gucci - Kreayshawn
And so begins another love/hate relationship. Awful stage name, and at times she's just plain annoying - but I get it: the act must be consistent so as to accentuate her tongue-in-cheek sass, all of which is in ripping über-brat form on this, her debut single proper. You see, 'Gucci Gucci' is only so fabulous because it's that ridiculous. I mean, "Groupies follow me like Twitter/I'm rollin' up my catnip and shittin' in your litter." What's not to love? I don't know whether she took any cues from little-known rapper Skee-Lo, but every time I play this I hear shades of his '90s almost-hit 'I Wish'.
35. Go Outside - Cults
Such a fitting title for a simple little tune which conjures up an atmosphere of fireflies and stars twinkling in the summer night's sky. The dreamy chorus plays like a lazy mantra for those holed up inside, encouraging through both lyrics and melody to get up, get out, move on, and live life.
34. In The Dark - Dev
One of my fav discoveries of 2011. I say 2011, because even though she made her mark on Far East Movement's 'Like A G6' last year, it was pretty much expected that she wouldn't be troubling the Hot 100 again. I'm not above being proven wrong, especially when the proof turns out to be this dazzling. It's dance music without conforming to the Dr. Luke/Max Martin interpretation. Not that they're any worse or better, but with so much of their stock dominating the airwaves it's refreshing to hear it move in a slightly new, more alternative, direction. Her deadpan vocals also give her an edge - a weapon used to exquisite effect on her album.
33. Beautiful People - Chris Brown feat. Benny Benassi
It's apparent from the start that this isn't your typical Chris Brown song. And that excites me. Benny Benassi's knack for pacing dance tracks to peak at just the right moment for maximum impact is in ripping form here, with many parts of the song riding on synths alone, no beat, no voice. The song spends its entire time building, exploding, and rebuilding, but rather than becoming a chore for the listener, it instead creates a level of excitement and anticipation rarely found in the hands of artists like Chris Brown.
32. So Gone (What My Mind Says) - Jill Scott feat. Paul Wall
Few have mastered the spoken/sung sultriness required to deliver a track like this with conviction. But true to form, Jill does exactly that, effortlessly producing one of the better sex jamz of the last few years, even managing to moan on the record without compromising her thinking-soul-sister integrity or boho authenticity.
31. Invisible - Skylar Grey
Breaking 2011 tradition, Skylar Grey took a risk when she bucked the trend of self-loving, freak-embracing young women and instead opted to release a song about dealing with those days where you just feel like shit. Over a simple hip-hop shuffle and understated guitar pinches, she bleeds her heart dry without the need for dramatic inflections or vocal gymnastics. In another time, it might've been a big hit.
30. Jack Sparrow - The Lonely Island feat. Michael Bolton
Like Flight Of The Conchords, The Lonely Island more often than not demonstrate the smarts to marry their skits with a melody so strong it could almost make it on its own. And with 'Jack Sparrow' in particular I would argue that it nearly overshadows the joke altogether. Not easy given the plotline; that Michael Bolton is a closet cinephile so obsessed with movies that he can't even manage recording a three-minute song. And sure, it's funny, and the video is a treat, but for all the one-liners and goofy shock value, the highlight for me here is the music itself, with Bolton's soul/rock warble driving a hook big enough to battle anything in the Top 10.
29. Far Away - Marsha Ambrosius
I've long been a fan of Marsha's "less is more" approach, but she took it to a deeper level here. The way the song collapses into a Zapp & Roger-like state by the end is just hypnotizing. It's difficult figuring out which shines brighter; the song content or her voice, but both had stiff competition from the accompanying video, which told the story from an unexpected, yet touching, perspective.
28. Shake It Out - Florence + The Machine
In a world where it's becoming harder by the day for new artists to show any originality or blaze their own trail, it's breathtaking when one truly does. Expanding upon the wailing melodrama of Lungs, Ceremonials is at once both lighter and darker, even more confident than its predecessor, it's crushing and it's inspiring, but most importantly, it's simply better. The howling chorus of 'Shake It Out' has given me goosebumps every time I've played it. The fact that somebody can scale such creative heights with only their voice is astonishing. And her reasoning that it's hard to dance, "with the devil on your back" drives her point home that much harder. I live.
27. Man Down - Rihanna
Probably the truest representation in her catalogue as to why she should never be underestimated, Rihanna's Caribbean-tinged ode to the fatal consequences of acting on impulse drew shades of everything from Inner Circle to her own 'Unfaithful'. It's pure bliss from beginning to end, aided not least by her delivery. This is a song so intense in its theme that it simply wouldn't have worked without that voice peaking at all the right moments. An overlooked gem.
26. Motivation - Kelly Rowland feat. Lil Wayne
It may have taken a few - or thirty - false starts, but Kelly Rowland finally nailed it. This is fantastically produced, and every "coo" and "aah" sounds genuine and not forced which is a factor too often overlooked when these girls get their ho on. It puts me in two minds because for years I've been wanting her to properly commit to dance music, but when she makes R&B this exciting I'm inclined to take the pressure off her finding that ever-elusive niche she was banging on about when this album got underway.
25. I Wrote The Book - Beth Ditto
It's become the norm these days for front-men and women to don the hat of a solo artist in between albums. Not so common is the thirst for a separate identity which can accompany it. Brandon Flowers proved on Flamingo that he's got the chops to rock things solo, but as I mentioned in last year's countdown, it poses the question of what it is exactly the other Killers do? So it's with this spirit of adventure that Gossip's Beth Ditto tackled her four-track EP produced entirely by the undervalued Simian Mobile Disco. As evidenced on their previous collaboration, the fantastic 'Cruel Intentions', it shows that, stripped of her thrashing backing band and hard edge, Beth is even more alluring and mysterious - both of which are maximised to excellent effect, especially on this, her debut single. Bring on the album.
24. Paradise - Coldplay
I read an interview with Chris Martin earlier in the year when the band were putting together Mylo Xyloto, and when asked if a great song ever makes him jealous, he said he tries to outdo it. This stadium-ready power ballad is surely a result of that motivation. After the punchy optimism of 'Every Teardrop', it was back to what Coldplay do best. Strings, swirling guitars, and a 50-man strong chorus, this has it all. Another triumph.
23. Blow - Ke$ha
To me, this song almost felt like the dance/pop monster trend of the last few years was finally eating itself. A hook so stupidly catchy I found myself asking where could it possibly go from here? Ke$ha had out-Ke$ha'd herself, and in a "Your move, Gaga" kind of way, she had seemingly shaken off the 'copycat' tag which had plagued her since 'TiK ToK'. I'm glad she's currently on hiatus because there really is a limit to her party trash, but I'll be very interested to see how she tackles her next era.
22. Bloodstained Heart - Darren Hayes
It's a funny feeling when an artist has peaked commercially but continues to evolve artistically. If you flop in today's cut-throat market it seems your only options are to either pack it in or sell out. Thank God Darren Hayes has refused to do either. 'Bloodstained Heart' is one of those songs that I hear and can't wait to tell somebody about. A song so structured and paced that the climax is everything you hope it will be. It takes the subtle magic of Snow Patrol and pairs it with a mighty Coldplay chorus, only unlike those acts, his song won't scale the charts, due mostly to the fact that he has the reputation of a '90s hasbeen. And that's a shame.
21. Love On Top - Beyoncé
Initially one of my least fav tracks from 4, this has now become one of my most loved songs from Beyoncé's entire career. It wasn't that I disliked it, but I used to blast it mainly in anticipation of the epic key changes which elevate the tune from good to great in the final act. That's mostly still true, but I've now come to appreciate the build-up for the solid purpose it serves. It's a quiet key ingredient - by no means the star attraction, however you realize it was constructed that way for a reason. Kinda like if the song were a girl group: the two so-so verses would be Kelly & Michelle and the last showstopping minute-and-a-half would be Beyoncé.
20. The A Team - Ed Sheeran
2011 has been an amazing year for storytelling. Musically, this could pass as a pretty little ditty in the vein of Jason Mraz or Plain White T's, but listen to the words and you'll hear the tragic tale of a homeless drug-addled woman hoping for nothing more than a better life. Ed's gift of being able to weave around a track without overshadowing the unfolding chapters is incredible. His wimpering voice, his backing vocals, his little piano accents, they're all simple things but so effective when they come together. An amazing find.
19. Holocene - Bon Iver
Rarely am I without words to describe something I love, but this track right here stumps me a little. It's not a song, it's a work of art. Justin's falsetto is so dreamlike that it's an instrument in its own right. Such an easy song and album to dissolve in.
18. Pumped Up Kicks - Foster The People
A song so gloriously catchy it's as if they caught Summer and locked it in the studio. I must admit, despite its obvious appeal, I was surprised at just how well the track was received, and by its apparent longevity also. Originally released over twelve months ago, it hardly supports the 'overnight success' tag the track has earned them, but whether mainstream came early or late to the party, it's so refreshing to see a real band sitting amongst an endless array of solo artists in the Top 5. And if they're this good on album number one, just imagine what's to come.
17. The Last Dance - Clare Maguire
Clare Maguire is like an all-girl supergroup. There are shades of so many strong female artists I love from years past. Annie Lennox, Stevie Nicks, Lisa Stansfield, Marcella Detroit. They're all embedded in her and she's given them a 21st century makeover complete with Florence-like production and a soaring vocal. Written after the passing of her childhood hero, Michael Jackson, 'The Last Dance' tells the story of pain so many of us experienced in the wake of his death. "I wasn't ready to lose you / You were the first man to move me / Got to try to move on but I promise you / I will kiss your crown when life takes me down." Exquisite.
16. On The Floor - Jennifer Lopez feat. Pitbull
Don't call it a comeback. J.Lo's return to the spotlight via American Idol was a welcome one, and as perfect timing would have it, this Pitbull-assisted stomper gave her career the kind of one-two punch she was used to knocking out over a decade ago. Reactions to the 'Lambada' sample were mixed, but to me it was lightning in a bottle, resulting in RedOne's best single outside Gaga's discography.
15. E.T. - Katy Perry feat. Kanye West
Much has been said about Katy's Teenage Dream era, but for all the talk of perfect singles picked I think she deserves just as many props for their chronology as well. I doubt 'E.T.' would have worked as a lead single, so keeping it in her back pocket ready to follow her hatrick of sugary number ones definitely played a part in its impact. The slap-and-crash beat is in such stark contrast to everything else on that album, to the point where it almost doesn't belong. Kanye wasn't needed, but I love that he just dirties the whole thing up. And I gotta say, live, it's a fucking beast.
14. Price Tag - Jessie J feat. B.o.B
"Risky" would hardly be the first word to come to anyone's mind at the mention of Jessie J, but to me that's what a big part of 'Price Tag' - and in fact her entire album - was. In this overpopulated era of hyper-paced electro pop and "woah-oh-oh" hooks it appealed to me that Jessie entered the fray with a set of mid-tempo songs built around (albeit basic) stories rather than a Red Bull chorus. B.o.B doesn't add much, but that's surely down to the fact he's hardly needed.
13. Marvins Room - Drake
The first time Drake properly lived up to his hype. Thank Me Later was undoubtedly a very solid record, but 'Marvins Room' let us know that shit just got deep. Take Care is one of the year's best; a masterclass in doom and gloom, peaking beautifully with this wounded drunk-dialing rhyme.
12. Till The World Ends - Britney Spears
I assumed it was simply down to timing, given that every few years Britney churns out a hit so undeniably infectious that it practically begs repeating, but this calls for both recognition and comparison less trivial and more sincere than that with which I received 'Circus', 'Gimme More', and even 'Toxic'. This is a Britney track in a league of its own. Quick, current, and so damn catchy, it's not until two-thirds of the way in that you realize just what a monster this song is. If only she weren't a concrete cylinder onstage, I imagine that chant-along chorus would be magnificent to experience live.
11. The Edge Of Glory - Lady Gaga
The first song of the Born This Way era to properly satisfy my taste and put my mind at ease. The title track, whilst groundbreaking, did nothing for me musically. 'Judas' was fun, but I tired of it quickly and could never really shake the feeling that it was merely an overcrowded, less-effective 'Bad Romance'. I needed reassurance that the biggest pop star in the world hadn't neglected those of us who followed her more for the music than the theatrics, and that's why there was so much hinging on 'The Edge Of Glory' for me. Thankfully, it wasn't for nothing. So overblown in its execution but never at the expense of the tune itself, it just felt so right from the first listen - a feeling I hadn't experienced with Gaga since 'Paparazzi'. Bring on the tour because I know she must've had a sold out crowd in mind when she pieced that chorus together.
10. Party Rock Anthem - LMFAO feat. Lauren Bennett & GoonRock
Ever since America fell back in love with dance music it had been waiting for a moment like this, where all the synth stars would finally align to create an absolute firecracker of a dance smash big enough to blow a hole in the world. Call them annoying (they are), call them a fad (all signs point there), but this song will NOT be denied. A true party rock anthem.
9. Swim Good - Frank Ocean
Hands down the greatest post-Kanye hip-hop/soul track to grace my eardrums. What a tale, and what a voice to tell it. An afternoon in the life of a man so broken he simply has to get away. Even read as a poem the story is captivating, but the devastation in his voice is what really sells it. He can wring an awful lot of emotion out of the words "I'm going off". Quite frankly, it's far too good for any mixtape. The idea that he might recreate even half of this magic on his debut album has me salivating.
8. Super Bass - Nicki Minaj
For an artist with a Hot 100 profile as big as Nicki's upon debut, it was odd that her album didn't have a certifiable hit single anywhere on it. Try as they may have, missteps in the form of the dreadful will.i.am-assisted 'Check It Out' and the forgettable 'Your Love' just weren't enough to carry Pink Friday the distance. It's rare for a bonus track to save the day, but not every bonus track is 'Super Bass'. The quick-as-a-whip verses and wildfire chorus were the missing pieces of the Top 40 puzzle, and paired with a kitschy video it showed the world - and possibly Nicki herself - that she'd branched beyond the confines of novelty rap and into the breathier realm of pop stardom. I expect album number two to reflect exactly that.
7. We Found Love - Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris
In last year's countdown I touched on how I was surprised Calvin Harris had yet to penetrate America. With the dance revival in full swing and everybody's love for a big chorus never about to waver, it just didn't make sense to me; his act was the epitome of both. So here we are one year on and it looks like the masses may have finally come around. His glittery, laser show production is front-and-centre, and whilst Rihanna does a fantastic job keeping up, I feel like it's that pulsating thump which steals the show here. Many have tried - and succeeded - bringing the Euro sound to the Hot 100 again, but few achieved it with such ferocity and confidence as these two. It's utterly euphoric.
6. Titanium - David Guetta feat. Sia
An unlikely pairing given Sia's penchant for all things left of the middle, however they say opposites attract, and thankfully that notion rings window-shatteringly true here. I mean, there are big choruses, and then there's 'Titanium'. It's the hook of all hooks, so much so that on any other day the bridge could be a chorus and the backing track could pass for a solid instrumental. I don't know whether it was David or Sia who thought better of releasing it with Mary J. Blige as intended, but I can't help thinking the magic would've been completely lost in her hands.
5. Houdini - Foster The People
Like Miike Snow, Passion Pit and Two Door Cinema Club before them, Foster The People have proven such a great discovery because they've got their pop down to a fine science. Nothing on their album feels half-assed, it's all calculated. And it's because of this they will never fall into the trap of being too edgy for Top 40 or too commercial for the alternative crowd. 'Houdini' represents the best bits of each world coming together, mingling for a couple minutes before eventually stripping off and going at it like rabbits. The last 40 seconds is so eargasmic it seriously feels like the song is ejaculating skittles.
4. I Follow Rivers - Lykke Li
A gloomy piece of tribal pop perfection lifted from the best album I heard this year. There is simply nobody else like her, and on 'I Follow Rivers', especially, it's safe to say she's crafting the type of soul-stirring alt. pop that nobody else could - not even inspiration and fellow-Swede Robyn. Although like her, she's mastered the art of balance on her records so beautifully it flattens me. After the dirty funk and suggestive lyrics of first single 'Get Some', I was expecting something more carefree and loose, instead we were treated to a slew of songs so layered and heavy they boggle the mind. There is so much going on underneath 'I Follow Rivers' that I discover something new to love with every listen. To think Youth Novels barely scratched the surface of her brilliance would have been a ridiculous concept to entertain at the time, but with Wounded Rhymes she scares me in the best way imaginable. I just can't wait to see what the future holds for this woman.
3. All Of The Lights - Kanye West
There comes a point in a select few artist's careers where, through sheer consistency, you stop hoping and start believing that they will no doubt outdo themselves on their next record. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - and in particular 'All Of The Lights' - certified Kanye West as one of those arists for me. The gloomy piano intro sets the tone beautifully for the jarring onslaught that is the main course. The guest list is preposterous, but with everything this track throws at you it's pretty clear that "understated" was not the goal here. A beautiful, dark, twisted masterpiece.
2. Somebody That I Used To Know - Gotye feat. Kimbra
The sound of breaking up. Gotye's gut-wrenching vocal twitches are the heart and soul of this track about confronting the realization that the person you loved now may as well be a stranger. Kimbra's side of the story is a neat plot twist halfway through, but this is Gotye's moment and he's not about to be out-heartbroken by anyone. There were few moments in 2011 where the lyrics married the melody quite as beautifully as this.
1. Someone Like You - Adele
Every generation can lay claim to a very select handful of devastating ballads which tear through the hearts of a billion listeners. This is one of ours. In the vein of previous classics along her timeline ('Nothing Compares 2 U', 'I Will Always Love You', 'My Heart Will Go On', 'We Belong Together'), Adele has used only her voice and a piano to craft an anthem so dizzyingly enormous it has spanned the globe and catapulted her into the big league, ensuring both her and this song will go down as one of the greatest of all time.
Sure Thing - Miguel
Dedication To My Ex (Miss That) - Lloyd feat. Andre 3000 & Lil Wayne
Need You Now | Cut Copy
L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N. - Noah And The Whale
Niggas In Paris - Jay-Z & Kanye West
Read All About It - Professor Green feat. Emeli Sandé
Thinking About You - Frank Ocean
Suzanne & I - Anna Calvi
Crystalline - Björk
Heaven - Emeli Sandé